All surfers know that even though we are submersed in the natural elements, what is under our feet – our surfboard – is anything but natural.
What surfers don’t know is that options are available now… right now. A less toxic surfboard with a much lighter CO2 footprint is possible. This is true even if we assume we’re starting with a blank made of super-strong EPS as it’s now possible to get that blank made from recycled waste polystyrene foam (commonly known as “styrofoam”).
This will be a three-part blog series looking at this issue. This post will look at the blank, the second post will connect with the shaper and the third at the glassing stage. I’m not suggesting this is an authoritative look at this subject, success to me equals you asking the question “how can my next board be… better?”
Let’s start in 2005. Most of us remember Clark Foam abruptly shutting down (seemingly due to frustrations with environmental challenges). It was the death of a monopoly for surfboard blanks. Many thought the industry would never be the same and shapers hoarded the remaining Clark blanks. But what happens is what usually happens when a single source shuts down: the industry innovated and has blossomed into something far better and more reflective of modern tastes and issues.
In the next few years, Firewire went from a fringe player to the choice of a touring pro, Surftech built a stable of A-list shapers making epoxy boards available to the masses, Patagonia surfboards in the lineup became commonplace, Danny Hess and Grain surfboards embraced wood. Enjoy started making handplanes out of scraps of broken boards. Some called it a renaissance of sorts.
The new era felt like a third Mad Max (repurposed materials), a third This Old House (re-interpretation of products made from natural materials) and a third Silicon Valley (endless cycles of innovation and hacks).
All of a sudden, things shifted and a multitude of shapers were paying much more attention to the entire board creation process. They started actively seeking alternative materials for surfboard blanks and experimenting with non-toxic approaches to glassing. This brings me to Sustainable Surf‘s Waste to Waves program and Marko Foam.
Marko Foam started recycled surfboard blank technology in 2009. They started taking back the bones (cut offs) of shaped blanks from their blank customers, as a good customer service gesture. Marko then got the waste EPS material recycled by one of their vendors who was able to produce a re-manufactured Polystyrene bead. Marko was then able to make their recycled EPS blanks from that re-manufacturered material. Last year this process expanded when the Waste to Waves program was started, allowing individuals to become part of this same effort.
I’ve known Michael Stewart for a while. He’s a maven connected to Surfrider’s San Francisco chapter and was an early proponent of carbon-neutral surf pros and pushing out sustainable best practices to surf contests. He and Kevin Whilden came together got stuck on the idea that the very trash we throw away could become the raw materials for a better, stronger EPS blank. They started a nonprofit called Sustainable Surf. That organization has a program called Waste to Waves to make this happen. Creating an ad-hoc supply chain where people can recycle their hard, white polystyrene packing materials and have that trash become among other things… killer surfboard blanks. Honestly, they had me at “trash to slash.”
Before I continue (and it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway) I’d like to say that the “greenest surfboard” is one you don’t have to create. This is the same as the fact that the greenest car is no car at all. My point with this blog isn’t to debate that point. Nor is it to compare one kind of virgin blank over another. That dialogue is great and it’s happening all over the web. My point here is to figure out how to make a great board from the junk we’re throwing into landfills.
I’ve been a fan of EPS foam/epoxy resin based boards since a high school friend of mine ran one of my epoxy boards over with all four wheels of his truck and didn’t damage the board. The idea of getting a board made from polystyrene trash was intriguing, so I decided to follow the process and get a board made. I had one condition (and it’s the same one you’d have): it had to be as good, if not better, than my other options for boards. The process starts with collection bins throughout California. A list of where those are is here. I brought in some of that hard, white packing material that surrounds TVs and computers. Once the bins are filled, the waste EPS foam is brought to Marko foam, who gets the material recycled, and ultimately makes the (now recycled) EPS surfboard blanks. Going back to my “had to be as good if not better” point above, it turns out that when EPS foam is recycled, it’s as strong as virgin EPS.
I wanted to understand this entire process better so I decided to follow the entire process and have a board made of scrap styrofoam. So I did. I filled half a Waste to Waves bin and contacted Marco Foam to buy a blank.
In the next two posts I’ll follow my blank to the shaper stage and then onto the glasser.
Above is a video of the process at Marko foam. The single question I want you to ask is “how can I get one of these blanks?” The answer is ask your shaper to contact Marko foam directly, specifically you can email Clay at firstname.lastname@example.org.